William “Bill” Littlejohn is one of the unsung heroes of this country.
He was born in land-locked Mitchell, Nebraska in 1922. Thinking to see the world, Bill and three friends decided to go to Denver and enlist in the Navy in October of 1940. Bill was the only one who passed the physical.
He was assigned to the light cruiser USS St. Louis (CL-49) in December 1940. The ship conducted Pacific patrols during the winter of 1940–1941. Then it steamed to the mainland at Mare Island for an overhaul, returning to the Hawaiian Islands in June and resumed normal operations in the Hawaiian waters.
Two months later, St. Louis sailed west with other cruisers of the battle force patrolled between Wake Island, Midway, Atoll and Guam then, proceeded to Manila, returning to Hawaii at the end of September. On September 28, 1941, she entered the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard for upkeep.
Little did Bill know how his life – and the lives of his crewmates – would become as one with the St. Louis.
Pearl Harbor attacked
The ship was still in Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked. The firing leads were off of the St. Louis’ anti-aircraft guns, her engines were cold and two of the eight boilers were dismantled for cleaning.
Bill was on the quarter deck early that morning when Japanese planes were flying overhead. General quarters were sounded at once and Bill rushed to his duty station in the number two boiler room. His primary duty there was to be sure the oil-fired boilers were full of water. The water used in the boilers was distilled from sea water and the steam created by the boilers generated the power to propel the ship.
Steaming out of the harbor, under attack
Very quickly, guns were firing and preparations were being made to get the ship underway. The St. Louis was the first major ship of three to get out of the harbor and left by the south channel. It was able to get underway very quickly, in 67 minutes. Normally it took two to three hours to build up steam on the boilers to get a ship moving.
‘The Lucky Lou’
While the St. Louis was preparing to depart, it was fired on by a Japanese mini sub whose torpedoes missed. The St. Louis was strafed, near-missed by bombs but still made it out of the harbor and to the open sea, suffering minimal damage. With all that happening, the crew nicknamed her the “Lucky Lou.”
For the next three days, the St. Louis patrolled the Hawaiian Islands, looking for the Japanese Fleet. They were not able to find the enemy and were assigned to convoy duty escorting civilians back to the mainland and troops back to Hawaii. During the war, the St. Louis was part of the task force which was the Navy’s initial attack of the war in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in early 1942.
The St. Louis delivered Marines to Midway and missed the main battle, which was the turning point of the war. Bill and the crew of the St. Louis cruised “The Slot” of the Central Solomon Islands, seeking to disrupt and halt the infamous “Tokyo Express” that supplied the Japanese war machine in the Pacific.
The cruiser saw action at many locations in the Pacific, from the Philippines to the Aleutians – including damage to her bow from a torpedo at the Battle of Kolombangara in 1943 and a bomb hit from a dive bomber in 1944. The bomb that hit penetrated the 40 mm clipping room near the No. 6 gun mount, and exploded in the midships living compartment. Records from that day show that 23 men died and 20 were wounded, 10 seriously.
On November 27, 1944, a Japanese kamikaze dove on the ship at Leyte. The plane crashed on the hanger deck. The plane and its bomb detonated on impact, causing severe damage and killing 16 crewmen and injuring others.
During the war, 38 of the St. Louis’ crew and one officer lost their lives.
The St. Louis earned 11 Battle Stars during World War II, plus a Navy Unit Commendation for outstanding heroism in action against the enemy. The ship is credited with sinking two light cruisers, one heavy cruiser, five destroyers, one submarine, damaging five destroyers, and shooting down or assisting the shooting down of 20 enemy aircraft.
Bill stayed with the St. Louis for the duration of the war. He was the junior NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) and attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer. In addition, he was awarded the Commission Pendant.
Peace time in Sacramento
After the war, Bill married his sweetheart, Josephine, in 1946. The couple raised two sons and now have one grandson and one great-grandson and a great-granddaughter.
Bill and “Jo” have resided in the Sacramento area since 1950. Bill worked for many years at the Big Boy Markets in Sacramento. He has done a lot of volunteer work with the Carmichael Elks. He is also a charter member of Pearl Harbor Survivors Chapter 6.
Bill’s wife Jo is the youngest of five girls. She and her three living sisters plus other guests recently attended a joint birthday party that was given for Bill and Jo. About 90 guests were in attendance for the event, some coming from as far away as Colorado.
The couple, both in their 90s, have been married for some 66 years.
Bill and Jo will be honored in the upcoming Carmichael 4th of July Parade as “Co-Grand Marshalls,” sponsored by the Carmichael Elks Lodge where they are active members. The theme of this year’s parade is: “Honoring American Spirit.”